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“ Too much certainty of justice always leads to injustice .” Reinhold Niebuhr. “The ambiguity of human virtue”. Reinhold Niebuhr. 1892-1971 Labor activist Pacifist in youth Anti-communist Theologian & public intellectual “Christian realism” & just war theory Critic of Vietnam war.
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“Too much certainty of justice always leads to injustice.”Reinhold Niebuhr “The ambiguity of human virtue”
Reinhold Niebuhr • 1892-1971 • Labor activist • Pacifist in youth • Anti-communist • Theologian & public intellectual • “Christian realism” & just war theory • Critic of Vietnam war
Core Themes • Original sin • Humility • The inevitability of war • Morality + politics = responsibility • American history characterized by irony • “Christian realism” • Vs. realism • Vs. idealism
Key Terms • Pathetic • Tragic • Ironic • Sin • Bourgeois liberalism • Communism
The pathetic • Pathos • “Pathos is that element in an historic situation which elicits pity, but neither deserves admiration which elicits pity, but neither deserves admiration nor warrants contrition.” (xxiii) • Pity the appropriate response of the spectator • No positive or negative moral attribution • “Pathos arises from fortuitous cross-purposes and confusions in life for which no reason can be given, or guilt ascribed. Suffering caused by purely natural evil is the clearest instance of the purely pathetic.” (xxiii) • No reason • Cancer, earthquakes, etc.
The tragic • Tragōidia • “The tragic element in a human situation is constituted of a conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice.” (xxiii)
The tragic • Tragedy is a choice between conflicting goods • Lesser evils, only bad choices • An admission, not a denial, of guilt • A realization that the lesser evil remains evil • No such thing as a “tragic flaw”
The tragic • Tragōidia • “The tragic element in a human situation is constituted of a conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice.” (xxiii) • Tragedy is a choice between conflicting goods • Lesser evils, only bad choices
The tragic • An admission, not a denial, of guilt • A realization that the lesser evil remains evil • No such thing as a “tragic flaw” • “Tragedy elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt.” (xxiii) • The appropriate response of the spectator to tragedy is pity for the agent in the tragic situation, admiration for its moral responsibility, and condemnation for its guilt. • For Niebuhr, the Cold War is tragic
The ironic • Eirōneía(feigned ignorance) • “Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to not be merely fortuitous.” (xxiv) • An element of the comic, but more than comic. Laughter, but also realization & insight. • Different from pathetic situations in that the actor involved bears responsibility for the situation. • Different from tragedy in that the responsibility is due to an unconscious weakness rather than a conscious decision.
The ironic • Strength becoming weakness due to vanity of strength = ironic • Realization of ironic complicity must lead to “abatement of pretension, which means contrition; or it leads to a desperate accentuation of the vanities to the point where irony turns into pure evil.” (xxiv) • Niebuhr understands Christianity as inherently ironic. • Ex) The Crucifixion as the final victory of Christ
Sin • More than just doing bad things. • Doctrine of original sin, roots in Augustine • Humans inherently, not just tendentially, corrupt. • Resultantly, all human efforts must be imperfect • Humility thus a necessity
Bourgeois liberalism • Capitalist • Competitive elections • Rights-based legal system • Tendency to embrace the perfectibility of humanity, rejecting universality of sin • Tendency to pretend innocence
Communism • For Niebuhr, this means Soviet communism • Claim to possession of absolute knowledge, and thus mastery, of historical processes. • Led by the vanguard, a group that best understands the historical dialectic, and thus by definition acts for the benefit of the proletariat • Historical processes make final victory of communism inevitable.
The limits of freedom • Extravagant emphasis on individual freedom • For Niebuhr: • The freedom to completely make oneself is a falsehood • Humans occur within societies, and are partly made by them • In our culture, emphasis on overt, rather than covert, forms of power. • “Since property is a form of power, it cannot be unambiguously a source of social peace and justice. For every form of power, when inordinate or irresponsible, can be a tool of oppression or injustice.” (104) • Thus, too much emphasis on voluntarism
The limits of control • “Despite the constant emphasis upon the ‘dignity of man’ in our own liberal culture, its predominant naturalistic bias frequently results in views of human nature in which the dignity of man is not very clear.” (6) • Science as a worldview • The human as creature • The acknowledgement of the reality of the free self “introduces an unpredictable and incalculable element into the causal sequence. It is therefore embarrassing to an scientific scheme.” (8) • The measurable as the real • The human as object, not subject. Humans not essentially different from molecules. • Too much emphasis on control
For Niebuhr, each of these things is bad • Denies limits of human condition, which for his both as creature and creator • Both fantasies of total control, ignoring the limitations of human power and knowledge • Fortunately for Americans, their creed is incoherent, and these two positions counteract each other, leading to pragmatic adjustment • Equilibrating power • The menace of communism is in its coherency, which enhances the power of its dogma • Niebuhr sees in Communism a kind of atheistic religion, with Russia as its holy land.
The Problem with Communism • For Niebuhr • Communism describes property (ownership) as the sole source of power • Political power (government) is a front for this power • Thus, only the property-less class (the proletariat) is disinterested, and can act in the universal interest • Since property is for Communists the only form of power, the property-less have no particular interests to defend • The vanguard are the first group to achieve revolutionary class consciousness, comprehending the laws of history • Thus, they act in the interest of all humanity. • Moreover, they act freely: finally understanding the laws of history, they can act in understanding of true reality • N. sees here a contradiction: if everything is historically determined, how can action be free?
The Problem with Communism • Thus, the Soviet government must adopt an attitude of hostility toward all other forms of government, denying their legitimacy and viewing them as destined for overthrow • The basic problem of the Soviets, for Niebuhr, is pride • Believe in the absolute truth of their dogma • Embrace vanguard (Soviet gov’t) as infallible • Moral reasoning by definition is for Niebuhr inherently problematic, reflecting pride. • “A too confident sense of justice always leads to injustice.” (138)
The Problem with Communism • America shares these messianic impulses, but they have been checked by historical contingency • Ironically, America is less free at its moment of greatest power than it was in its fragile infancy • But pretensions to innocence, to newness, remain • Realists, Idealists
Against “Realism” • Cold War realists argued that any means was justified in combating Communist nations • Vanity, a pretense that America is so good as to legitimate any means • “Loyalty to the community is... Morally tolerable only if it includes values wider than those of teh community.” (37) • For Niebuhr, communities cannot be moral, cannot transcend themselves.
Against “Idealism” • For Niebuhr, the idea that the nation can withdraw from the world, or that all disagreements can be talked out. • The first prizes moral purity over moral responsibility • The second is naive in its refusal to acknowledge the Communist threat • Moral behavior requires responsible engagement w/the world, which will sometimes mean compromised morality • To be good, one cannot be pure.
Niebuhr’s Religious Validation of Politics • “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. • Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. • Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. • No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” (63) • A critical dimension not only on politics, but on the self. • Morality not relative, but our understanding of it is flawed.
“Strangely enough, none of the insights derived from this faith are finally contradictory to our own purpose and duty of preserving our civilization. They are, in fact, prerequisites for saving it.”
“Strangely enough, none of the insights derived from this faith are finally contradictory to our own purpose and duty of preserving our civilization. They are, in fact, prerequisites for saving it.” • If the US is destroyed, the “primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred & vainglory.” (174)
Pres. Barack Obama, Nobel Acceptance Speech • “As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naive -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. • But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. • For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
Pres. Barack Obama, Nobel Acceptance Speech • “So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. • The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.” • “But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. • The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached -- their faith in human progress -- must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.”
Pres. Barack Obama, Nobel Acceptance Speech • “For if we lose that faith -- if we dismiss it as silly or naive; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace -- then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.” • “We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that -- for that is the story of human progress; that's the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.”
Pres. George W. Bush, Farewell Address • “If America does not lead the cause of freedom, that cause will not be led. As we address these challenges – and others we cannot foresee tonight – America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise.”
Pres. George W. Bush, Farewell Address • “The battles waged by our troops are part of a broader struggle between two dramatically different systems. • Under one, a small band of fanatics demands total obedience to an oppressive ideology, condemns women to subservience, and marks unbelievers for murder. • The other system is based on the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God and that liberty and justice light the path to peace. This is the belief that gave birth to our Nation. And in the long run, advancing this belief is the only practical way to protect our citizens.”